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Palin and "Daddy's Roommate"

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 14, 2008 - Late last week, liberal bloggers circulated a long list of books that Palin allegedly wanted off the shelves.  There was just one problem. There was no basis for the claim.

But a New York Times story on Sunday reports that Palin objected to the "Daddy's Roommate" book, which addressed homosexuality. The story quotes a former campaign manager urging Palin to read the book before objecting to it. Laura Chase, who ran Palin's mayor campaign a year after the 1995 incident, is quoted this way:

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

The American Library Association lists the book as the second most banned book during the 1990s, slightly ahead of Huckleberry Finn and Harry Potter. One of the law professors who has been debating the constitutional issues online points out that the Times story doesn't provide much detail on the book.  He adds this description of what he found on Amazon:

You can "search inside" this book on Amazon. From the pages I can see, it's about a boy whose parents got divorced last year, and whose father now has a roommate, with whom he eats, works, and sleeps (with a picture of them in bed together). Readers are later told that Daddy and his roommate Frank are gay and that "being gay is just one more kind of love."

Eugene Volokh, the First Amendment expert who blogs on free speech controversies, concludes that it probably does not violate the First Amendment for a city official to get a book removed from the public library. In a 1982 case of Island Trees v. Pico , the Supreme Court ruled that a school board couldn't remove books for political or partisan reasons. However there were not five votes for a single rationale, leaving the issue up in the air. Here is Volokh's analysis.

(1) Let me note again that it's not clear whether even viewpoint-based removals are actionable, given the absence of a majority in Pico (at least setting aside the overtly partisan rather than just viewpoint-based actions, such as the hypothetical of a "Democratic school board, motivated by party affiliation, order[ing] the removal of all books written by or in favor of Republicans").  I agree that they might be actionable, but "might be" is all that can be said.

(2) Say a Klansman brings his large collection of books on why blacks, Jews, etc. are inferior. Is it really the case that a library has a constitutional obligation to accept the collection, or even a significant part of it, even if it does routinely accept other books, and then display it on the library shelves and facilitate its distribution to patrons?

(3) As to "racier material," can it really be the case that if someone contributes his Playboy collection, the library has a constitutional obligation to shelve it the same way that other magazines are shelved?  Or is it the case that Playboy is too racy, but such an obligation does exist as to less racy works?

My sense is that given the inherent discretion that the library exercises in choosing which books to carry -- even if it normally accepts most donations from members of the public, it surely is more picky in deciding what to buy, which would likely constitute the bulk of its collection -- a library is entitled to say that its shelving a book is in some measure an imprimatur, of the book's general worthiness even if not of every assertion that the book makes. If that's so, then it seems to me that viewpoint-based selection criteria would itself be constitutional.

Finally, I would hope that all this is even more clear as to the children's collection in a library, whether a school library or a general public library.

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